Rachel Naomi Remen on the difference
between curing and healing
UCSF School of Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at the Boonshoft School of Medicine at Wright State University. She is also the founder of the Remen Institute for the Study of Health and Illness (RISHI) and the author of two books, Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather's Blessings.
Recently, Remen was a guest on Krista Tippet's On Being radio show and podcast where she talked about how her lifelong struggle with Crohn's disease has shaped her practice of medicine, and how she in turn is helping to reshape the art of healing.
"The way we deal with loss shapes our capacity to be present to life more than anything else," Remen says. "And each of us, with our wounds and our flaws, has exactly what’s needed to help repair the part of the world that we can see and touch."
Remen has also come to see that living well is not about eradicating our wounds and weaknesses but understanding how they complete our identity and equip us to help others. She believes that the way we deal with losses, large and small, shapes our capacity to be present to all of our experiences. There’s a difference, she says, between curing and healing. While the former is about eradicating some type of physical or mental ailment, the latter is all about remembering and reclaiming our inner wholeness, our authentic self.
Sometimes what appears to be a catastrophe, over time, becomes a strong foundation from which to live a good life. It's possible to live a good life even though it isn't an easy life. And I think that's one of the best-kept secrets in America. . . . [The pursuit of perfection has become a major addiction of our time.] I think perfection is the booby prize in life, actually. It's very isolating, very separating, and it's also impossible to achieve. So you're always struggling to become something you're not. But, this is – it sounds funny – one of the great joys of working with people on the edge of life. The view from the edge of life is so much clearer than the view that most of us have, that what seems to be important is much more simple and accessible for everybody, which is who you've touched on your way through life, who's touched you. What you're leaving behind you in the hearts and minds of other people is far more important than whatever wealth you may have accumulated. . . . We get distracted by stories other people have told us about ourselves, that we are not enough, that we will be happy if we have material goods, that material goods will keep us safe. None of these stories are true. What is true is that what we have is each other. [And yet] we don't live there. And this is why I see people with cancer and other people who have encountered very difficult experiences in their lives as teachers, teachers of wisdom. It's as if the wisdom to live well is – at the moment, the repository of this wisdom are the sick people in our culture, the ill people in our culture.
. . . [N]o one is comfortable with loss. Being that we're a technological culture, our wish or our first response to loss is try and fix it. When we are in the presence of a loss that cannot be fixed, which is a great many losses, we feel helpless and uncomfortable and we have a tendency to run away, either emotionally or actually distance ourselves. And fixing is too small a strategy to deal with loss. What we teach the students is something very simple. . . . We teach them the power of their presence, of simply being there and listening and witnessing another person and caring about another person's loss, letting it matter.
. . . Most people try to hold on to the thing that is no longer part of their lives, and they stop themselves in their lives in that way. I have come to see loss as a stage in a process. It's not the bottom line. It's not the end of the story. What happens next is very, very important. And people respond to losses in different ways. When I first became ill, I was enraged. I hated all the well people. I felt that I was a victim and this was unfair. I was angry for about 10 years. I think all of that anger was my will to live expressed in a very negative way.
People often are angry in the setting of a terrible loss. They often feel envious of other people, and this is a starting place. But over time things evolve and change. And at the very least, people who have lost a great deal can recognize that they are not victims, they are survivors. They are people who have found the strength to move through something unimaginable to them, perhaps, in the past. And just asking people that question: “You have suffered a really deep loss. What have you called upon for your strength?” Most people haven't even noticed their strength. They're completely focused on their pain.
[Wholeness is never lost, it is only forgotten, and] wholeness includes all of our wounds. It includes all of our vulnerabilities. It is our authentic self, and it doesn't sit in judgment on our wounds or our vulnerabilities. It simply says, “This is the way we connect to one another.” Often we connect through our wounds, through the wisdom we have gained, the growth that has happened to us. Because we have been wounded allows us to be of help to other people. So it's not a moral judgment. Integrity simply means what is true, to live from the place in you that has the greatest truth. And that truth is always evolving as well.
To hear and read Krista Tippet's interview with Rachel Naomi Remen in its entirety, click here.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
• A Discerning Balance Between Holiness and Wholeness: A Hallmark of the Resurrected Life
• Autumnal (and Rather Pagan) Thoughts on the Making of “All Things New”
• Thomas Moore on the Circling of Nature as the Best Way to Find Our Substance
• Thomas Moore on the "Ageless Soul"
• The Source Is Within You
• Soul Deep
Opening image: Bangarra Dance Company.